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Lawndale Rejects House of Yahweh’s Building Proposal : Council: Two-year debate ends. Two members promise to help the agency find funding, another site.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lawndale City Council voted 4 to 1 to deny House of Yahweh’s plans for a new building to provide showers and bathrooms for its homeless clients, ending months of emotionally draining debate that one city official characterized as “tearing this city apart.”

The decision came at the end of a two-hour hearing Thursday night that drew testimony from nearly 30 people, almost evenly split between opponents and supporters.

“I don’t think anyone is against the House of Yahweh,” Councilman Norm Lagerquist said to the standing-room-only audience, moments before voting against the project. But, he said, permitting the nonprofit agency to expand its facilities “would disrupt the immediate neighborhood. And I think having it in a residential area causes problems and will continue to cause problems.”

He and Councilwoman Carol Norman, who also voted against the proposal, promised to help House of Yahweh come up with other options, including finding funding sources and another site for the agency’s building.

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“I don’t think it’s compatible in this area, but I do think there’s a need,” Norman said, vowing to work with Yahweh volunteers “to come up with a site we can truly be proud of.”

Also opposing the project were Councilmen William Johnson and Larry Rudolph.

Mayor Harold Hofmann voted in favor of the 5,466-square-foot, two-story addition, which, in addition to the bathroom and showers, would have provided more storage and office space.

“We don’t even allow (the homeless) to use our (bathroom) facilities at City Hall, much to my chagrin,” Hofmann said, as he praised the nonprofit agency for providing services the city could not duplicate with “10 times the money . . . and volunteers.”

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Although an attorney for the House of Yahweh testified that the charity might sue if the council voted against it, Sister Michele Morris, House of Yahweh’s executive director, said after the vote that she took the offers of help from Norman and Lagerquist as a sign that the agency and city will be able to work out an alternative plan.

“I feel very up. I’m totally energized,” Morris said. The council “made a positive overture tonight, despite the negative vote. Now we’ll see if they really mean it.”

House of Yahweh, a Lawndale social service agency that runs a soup kitchen and thrift shop in the heart of the Civic Center, had twice won approval to build a two-story facility on its 9,688-square-foot lot, which currently has two small, one-story buildings and an open patio dining area.

Construction had already begun in April, 1990, when planning officials discovered that they had overlooked setback and landscaping requirements.

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The agency, which lost more than $35,000 as a result of the error, submitted new, conforming plans, which the Planning Commission approved in November. A neighbor appealed the decision to the City Council.

The council held two public hearings. After the first, on Feb. 7, the council postponed a vote, saying members wanted to review parking regulations and crime reports.

In a report made public this week, City Manager John Nowak told the council that he did not believe the project would be harmonious with the city’s long-range plans for the Civic Center, which the city is hoping to revitalize and which could become part of plans for a redevelopment district.

The crime report showed that deputies who patrol the Civic Center issued 580 warnings and 16 arrests between January and November, 1990. And Community Development Director John Chapman, who had previously approved the project, reported that the agency’s plans contained less than half the number of parking spaces required for the Civic Center.

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Dennis Neil Jones, the attorney for House of Yahweh, told the council that the “false starts in construction, planning errors and flip-flops” by city officials seemed to indicate hidden agendas and that the House of Yahweh is considering legal action against the city.

At Thursday’s hearing, testimony by opponents and supporters was punctuated by cheers.

Several business owners and residents blamed House of Yahweh’s clients for neighborhood crime, and opponents submitted a petition that was signed by 535 people. Many said that the agency drew too many transients to the area and that they had found men and women sleeping in the alleys behind their homes and urinating in their shrubs.

Kaveh Lahijani, co-owner of the Lawndale Medical Plaza on Hawthorne Boulevard, said people have used the elevator in his office building as a restroom so often that he had to change the carpet six times in the last year and a half.

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And Lawndale resident Tom Athanasas accused House of Yahweh of giving “a free ride to able-bodied bums.”

“I think our compassion should be directed at those residents who have worked all their lives to buy a home but are now watching their neighborhood be destroyed by bums,” Athanasas said.

On the other side, several neighbors spoke glowingly about the service House of Yahweh provides to needy people, and one woman said the neighborhood actually is safer since House of Yahweh opened its doors in 1982 because the city has extra deputies patrolling there.

“I feel safer now because I think . . . we have sort of overreacted to House of Yahweh,” said Beverly Lovelace, who lives near the agency. She and other well-wishers said the new building would answer many of the residents’ complaints and accused detractors of being prejudiced against the poor.

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“It doesn’t matter where you put House of Yahweh,” said Lawndale resident Mark Baller. “You have vagrants all over the city.”


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